A recent decision of the California Court of Appeal clarifies that agencies that employ commercial drivers, such as bus drivers, paratransit bus drivers and sanitation truck drivers can protect themselves from meal time penalties by providing for meal periods in their collective bargaining agreements – even if these are “on duty” meal periods.

California Labor Code section 512 mandates completely work-free meal periods of at least 30 minutes every five hours but this does not apply to the vast majority of public agency employees.   However, pursuant to IWC Wage Order No. 9, this requirement does apply to commercial drivers employed by public agencies.  The penalties for violation of this requirement are harsh – one hour’s pay for each meal period missed or encroached on by work.

Subdivision (e) of section 512 provides that the mandate does not apply to certain types of employees, including commercial drivers, if (1) the employee is covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement and (2) that agreement expressly provides for:

  • The wages, hours of work, and working conditions of employees
  • Meal periods for those employees
  • Final and binding arbitration of disputes concerning application of its meal period provisions
  • Premium wage rates for all overtime hours worked
  • A regular hourly rate of pay of not less than 30% more than the state minimum wage.

Araquistain v. Pacific Gas & Electric Company, recently decided by the California Court of Appeal is the first reported decision to address what language is sufficient in a labor contract to meet the requirements of the subdivision (e) exception.

In Araquistain, the contract covering the plaintiffs, who were one of the types of employees referenced in subdivision (e), provided that employees “shall be permitted to eat their meals during work hours.”

The plaintiffs argued that this language did not expressly provide for “meal periods,” as opposed to simply “meals.”   Relying on the California Supreme Court’s Brinker Restaurant decision, the plaintiffs argued that a meal period under section 512(e)(2) must be a period of time “with a beginning and an end” during which an employee is relieved of all duty.   The PG & E collective bargaining agreement provided only that employees were entitled to eat during work hours, and the plaintiffs testified that they ate while working.

The Court rejected the employees’ argument.  It held that, while the term “meal period” as used in section 512(a), which mandates a meal period every five hours, does mean that an employee must be relieved of all duty, it has a different meaning in section 512(e).  As used in section 512(e), which creates the exception, the term “meal period” does not require that the employee be relieved of all duty.  The Court noted that  “subdivision (e)(2) provides an exception to the ordinary rule that an employer must provide meal periods of a specified time after a specified amount of work; that is, it provides that where a collective bargaining agreement meets certain requirements, subdivision (a) ‘do[es] not apply.’  It would make no sense to conclude that subdivision (a)’s requirements apply to an employee who is explicitly exempted from them.”

The Court also pointed to the legislative history of the exception, signed into law in 2010, and concluded that the legislation was intended to increase meal period flexibility in certain industries, and to address to some degree the problem that employers were forced to monitor employee meal periods to ensure that the employees were not doing work.

Therefore, the Court found the language that employees “shall be permitted to eat their meals during work hours” does expressly provide for meal periods.    Agencies that employ commercial drivers should check their MOUs to determine if they qualify for the Section 512(e) exception.